by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

15-23. Rick Neuheisel's record since taking over as head coach in 2008.

Since when does UCLA football settle for such mediocrity?

Welcome to Westwood, circa 2011.

It’s still too early to bury this year’s gridiron Bruins and Neuheisel, admittedly under fire entering the season. Even after last week’s 38-34 opening loss at Houston, there are reasons to believe this year’s UCLA has a fighting chance to become respectable once more. An offense that became imbalanced (favoring the run) the past few seasons looks as if it might be rediscovering its aerial component under Neuheisel, whose hands are more on the strike force than they’ve been the past three years, and new o.c. Mike Johnson, recently with the NFL San Francisco 49ers. And perhaps Neuheisel is simply due a run of good luck after experiencing almost none of it, especially injury-wise, the past three years.

But we’re not examining the current edition of the Bruins as much as we are the athletic department mindset in Westwood that once upon a time would never have tolerated such indifferent performances, and certainly wouldn’t have given a football coach four years to forge a breakthrough. Excellence used to be expected for UCLA football when the athletic department was filled with sorts who set the bar at the highest levels.

It’s been a long time since those glory days in Westwood. And times when a 15-23 record such as Neuheisel's would hardly warrant a coach staying on the job.

Hard as it might be for most L.A-area residents under the age of 40 to believe, UCLA football used to be a big deal. Really big, on a national scale. The stereotype of playing second fiddle to crosstown rival Southern Cal has always been present, though we dare say it has been exaggerated in recent years by a shallow corps of local media sorts as well as UCLA itself. More on that in a bit.

Let’s turn back the clock 39 years and rewind to September 16, 1972. The talk of college football, nationally, was none other than UCLA. We know that might surprise the likes of Erin Andrews and the rest of the 30-somethings of the ESPN generation who might not realize that the Bruins were once known for sports other than basketball. But on that afternoon 39 years ago, UCLA was indeed big news, because it had just opened its season with a startling 20-17 upset of two-time defending national champion Nebraska. Moreover, the Bruins had introduced a new QB named Mark Harmon, son of Michigan great and former Heisman Winner Tom Harmon, and at the time a prominent sports TV personality. Harmon’s Hollywood-like debut running Pepper Rodgers’ newly-installed Wishbone offense sent shock waves across the nation. Sports Illustrated, in those days the official validator of important sports develpments, even devoted space to Harmon and UCLA's shocker in the next week's issue alongside reports on the chaotic final week of the Munich Olympics. The long-awaited and delayed debut of ballyhooed RB James McAlister, once the top-rated prep in the country, also garnered attention, especially after he broke for a 35-yard romp on his first collegiate varsity carry. Even the East Coast sports media was intrigued, enough so that much of it descended upon old Pitt Stadium that September 16 when Harmon and the Bruins faced Carl DePasqua’s Panthers in UCLA’s only trip East of the Mississippi that season.

Imagine the East Coast media going out of its way to watch a UCLA football game?

That the Bruins ended up winning that game over Pitt by a 38-28 score was mostly a footnote to the Mark Harmon headlines, but almost four decades later it is also a sad reminder of glory days gone by for UCLA football. Especially since the rebirth of football across town at USC over the past decade, as the Bruins have become a minor storyline even in their hometown, much less nationally. The local L.A.-area media was quick to resurrect the old stereotypes regarding UCLA playing second fiddle to the Trojans on the gridiron despite the fact that the Bruins had a one point won eight straight games in the ‘90s over their crosstown rivals. And as SC resurrected itself under Pete Carroll, the Bruins faded under Bob Toledo and disappeared almost completely under Karl Dorrell and now Neuheisel, both decorated UCLA football alums but neither able to rekindle the glory days in Westwood. Which put the Bruins at a disadvantage with high school recruits, whose attention span covers less time than an ESPN Sports Center, and cannot recall a time when UCLA was a significant football entity.

It's worth noting, too, that the trip to Pitt in '72 was UCLA's last to the northeast. The Bruins' intersectional schedule since has gradually tilted toward foes within the region, rather than the almost-annual affairs with the likes of Pitt, Syracuse, and Penn State in the '60s. UCLA's more far-flung intersectionals in recent decades have occasionally involved Big Ten and Big XII schools, with rare trips to SEC country (a handful to Tennessee, plus Georgia in '83 and Alabama in 2001) and Notre Dame (2006) interspersed. After the old PCC dissolved after 1958, UCLA was also high-profile enough to be mentioned as a possible member of a proposed "National Conference" in 1959 that would coincide with National Airlines' introduction of new coast-to-coast service; along with the Bruins and USC, independents of the day such as Air Force, Army, Navy, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, and Syracuse were to be included in the league, which advanced to the discussion stage but no further.

In regard to the current state of the program and Neuheisel's plight, however, it's a fact that no UCLA coach since the days of Harry Trotter in the 1920s has started a career as poorly as Slick Rick. Trotter had an excuse, however; the “Westwood branch” of the UC system opened in 1919 and was still brand new in those days, as was its football team, which only competed vs. local entities such as Occidental and Redlands. As well as Whittier, Richard Nixon’s alma mater, which laid a 103-0 whipping on the Bruins in 1920, Trotter’s first year of a 3-season stint that produced a 1-13 record, and still the only UCLA coach with a worse 3-year mark out of the gate than Neuheisel. Predecessor Fred Cozens didn’t fare much better at 2-8 in his lone season as coach during UCLA’s debut campaign in 1919, although we’re not sure the 72-0 loss that campaign to Manual Arts High was any less humiliating than the 103 points the Whittier Poets ran up the next year.

It didn’t take long for UCLA to begin winning, however. After Trotter, almost a century’s worth of Bruins coaches all fared much better than Neuheisel in their first three years in charge. They would include:

Bill Spaulding, who posted a 16-8-1 mark between 1926-28, laying the foundation for a program that would eventually emerge as a force in the old Pacific Coast Conference in the 1930s. Spaudling's successes would earn him a permanent spot in Bruin lore, as the football practice field bears his name to this day;

Babe Horrell, the only post-Harry Trotter coach other than Neuheisel to post a losing mark in his first three years (12-14-5 between 1939-41), although his ‘39 team finished 6-0-4, tied crosstown USC, 0-0, and also ended level with the Trojans atop the PCC. Horrell would eventually coach UCLA to its first-ever win over crosstown SC, 14-7, in 1942, and led the Bruins to their first Rose Bowl appearance that season, where they were beaten by Heisman winner Frankie Sinkwich, Maxwell Award winner Charley Trippi and the Georgia Bulldogs, 9-0;

Bert LaBrucherie, who recorded a 20-9-1 mark in his first three seasons in the post-war era of 1945-47, including a 10-0 regular-season mark in 1946 that preceded another Rose Bowl trip, unfortunately a 45-14 beatdown administered by a rugged Illinois team featuring scatback Buddy Young;

Red Sanders, arguably the greatest-ever Bruin football coach, lured from Vanderbilt in 1949 along with much of the Commodore faculty which also included the majority of the professors for UCLA’s first Law School classes. Sanders’ first three teams were 17-9 between 1949-51 and included a 39-0 demolition of hated SC in the 1950 crosstown renewal, still the Bruins’ biggest-ever margin of win over the Trojans. That was all just an appetizer for much of the rest of the ‘50s when Sanders’ UCLA became one of the preeminent national powers of the day, including a pair of Rose Bowl visits sandwiched around an unbeaten 9-0 mark in 1954 and a national championship as voted by UPI;

Bill Barnes, who went 19-10-2 between 1959-61, stayed in the rankings much of the 1960 season and took the Bruins to the Rose Bowl in 1961. Ironically, that all preceded UCLA’s worst three year-run (10-20 between 1962-64) until Neuheisel’s recent mark, and prompted Barnes’ dismissal after ‘64;

Tommy Prothro, a onetime Sanders assistant hired from Oregon State whose first three years coincided with Gary Beban’s varsity career in Westwood, and rivaled Red Sanders’ mid 50s teams as UCLA’s best ever. Prothro was 24-5-2 between 1965-67, including the Bruins’ first-ever Rose Bowl win (over Michigan State) after ’65, top ten finishes each year, and Beban’s Heisman in ‘67;

Pepper Rodgers, who after a 2-7-1 mark in ‘71, bounced back with two smashing years running the Wishbone offense in ‘72 (as noted above) and ‘73, finishing 17-5 those seasons for a 19-12-1 overall mark. Pepper, however, left for alma mater Georgia Tech after 1973;

Dick Vermeil, who lasted only two years in Westwood but compiled a 15-5-3 mark in 1974-75 that included a rousing win over top-ranked Ohio State in the January 1, 1976 Rose Bowl. Had Vermeil stayed for the 1976 season instead of jumping to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, and lost all of his games that campaign, his 3-year mark would still have been superior to Neuheisel’s;

Terry Donahue, who ascended to the top spot at age 31 following Vermeil’s departure and compiled a 24-9-1 mark between 1976-78, eventually stewarding another period of UCLA football glory and three Rose Bowl wins (one with Neuheisel at QB) in the ‘80s;

Bob Toledo, Donahue’s successor who enjoyed wild successes in his second and third years in Westwood, compiling a school-record 20-game win streak in that stretch. His record between 1996-98 was 25-10 before his regime lost momentum, although it should be noted that he was dismissed following back-to-back 7-win regular seasons in 2001 & ‘02, better marks than any of Neuheisel’s first three years;

Karl Dorrell, widely considered a failure in Westwood but who compiled a 22-15 mark in his first three years between 2003-05, the mirror opposite of successor Neuheisel’s 3-year mark.

So, we can see how much rope Neuheisel is being given to turn things around by AD Dan Guerrero, he himself perhaps under the gun with the prospects of two blown football hires in a row.

It is not lost on longtime UCLA followers how standards used to be so much higher, especially during the years between 1963-80 when the feared J.D. Morgan was Director of Athletics. It was Morgan who made the brilliant Prothro hire, and when the Southerner departed for the NFL L.A. Rams in 1971, Morgan took some heat for the appointment of Rodgers, a onetime Prothro assistant who had been Kansas’ coach the four years previous to his 1971 hire. It was said that Morgan was having doubts about Rodgers after a shaky ‘71 campaign, but a switch to the Wishbone late that season paved the way for the revival in 1972-73. Many longtime Bruin observers believe Morgan had put Rodgers under a win-or-else edict in ‘72, something it has apparently taken Guerrero four years to do with Neuheisel. Similarly, Morgan was said to be having doubts about Donahue after he sank to a 5-6 mark in 1979, plus four staright losses to rival USC, and strongly suggested staff changes for the following year. Morgan did not live long enough in 1980 to witness the turnaround forged by Donahue, which included a 9-2 mark, a rise to the No. 2 spot in the rankings, and the first win over the hated Trojans in five years. In large part it was due to one of Morgan’s last acts, a not-so-gentle suggestion of staff upgrades, and the offense being turned over to creative coordinator Homer Smith, who brought the Bruins into a new age and an era of glory under Donahue for most of the ‘80s.

We can only imagine what J.D. Morgan would have done with Rick Neuheisel as his football coach, or how he would have reacted to those current Bruin backers who believe that Neuheisel will have passed the test if he “gets UCLA back to a bowl game” this season. Which could mean a 6-6 mark and a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl...hardly what J.D. Morgan would have considered satisfactory in his day.

Since the Morgan days, however, the Bruin athletic department has been controlled by a succession of bureaucrats such as current AD Guerrero and predecessor Pete Dalis who have lacked Morgan’s foresight and panache. And ruthlessness, a quality that made Morgan such a feared entity in those days and allowed the UCLA athletic department to avoid close scrutiny from the NCAA while the likes of booster Sam Gilbert were breaking every rule in the book. It is no coincidence that UCLA’s problems in the early ‘80s with the NCAA and Pac-10 did not surface until after Morgan’s passing. Shortly thereafter, the football program was hit with a one-year bowl ban and the hoopsters barred from the 1982 Big Dance relating to infractions that included Gilbert’s shenaningans.

Coincidence, or did Morgan’s influence and reputation as having “the goods” on any potential enemies simply shield the Bruins from any repercussions?

Shrewd local observers, however, remain perplexed at how UCLA has not only ceded football dominance to crosstown SC, but allowed the Trojans to become the "cool and hip" school that has broad-ranging appeal to today’s urban-influenced youth.

Perplexing, indeed. Ironically, it is Southern Cal that is the private, old money school, conservative, and very Republican. Meanwhile, public-supported UCLA sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, especially politically. Westwood was also the sight of some of the famed protests, featuring many Bruins, during the Vietnam war. Such assemblies, if any, were on a much-smaller scale at SC. It would seem as though this well-documented dichotomy between the institutions would garner UCLA more favor and respect with the urban crowd.

Instead, and most amazingly, it’s the other way around. Mostly because of the locations of the two schools, with UCLA in the middle of trendy Westwood and abutting very glamorous Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Ritzy territory. Meanwhile, the SC campus twelve miles away sits in a decidedly urban setting, not far from Watts and South Central LA. The neighborhoods surrounding each are like night and day. And, apparently, that counts for more with the urban crowd that likes to identify with the urban school, no matter how straight-laced and conservative it (SC) might be.

We suspect it would surprise if not outright shock all of the youths in the urbanized LA area that Barack Obama would have polled much better at UCLA in the last presidential election than he would have at SC.

We also suspect that almost no youths, urban or otherwise, in the vast LA area have any idea that none other than Jackie Robinson attended UCLA. Those who even know of Robinson, given a choice if Jackie attended UCLA or SC, would almost assuredly opt for the latter.

How can this be?

Robinson is only one of several prominent African-American athletes who made their mark at UCLA, which never really had a color barrier, and certainly broke any long before SC across town. Again, a fact lost upon the majority of the urban youth who identify with the school in their (neighbor)hood.

Why doesn’t UCLA scream from the highest peaks of the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains that it is the school of Jackie Robinson? And not just a ceremonial renaming of the off-campus baseball field in honor of Robinson, better known as a football star in his UCLA days. How many urban youths follow college baseball, anyway?

UCLA should at the least retire Robinson’s football number, too.

Indeed, there is probably no school in the country where civil rights was more honored than UCLA. Robinson, Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and others were prominent African-American Bruin football stars long before other schools, SC included, began to feature black athletes. A fact lost again upon the urban youth of today...because the people in charge at UCLA don’t let them know about it.

Among major universities, UCLA’s contributions to African-Americans is second to none. It is the school of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dr. Ralph Bunche, Rafer Johnson, and Arthur Ashe (shown at right with Morgan, who was UCLA's tennis coach during Ashe's early days in Westwood). When a then-named Lew Alcindor decided to matriculate to UCLA from New York in 1965, he did so in part because he was impressed by the school’s contributions to black society, and its role in developing the likes of Dr. Bunche and Johnson. And we are still waiting for an athlete in any sport to demonstrate the articulation, class, and dignity of an Arthur Ashe...another UCLA product.

Yet, does the UCLA athletic department have anyone who recalls any of those great names who could help in promoting the image of the school? Do they even know of Rafer Johnson or the late Arthur Ashe, and their class and dignity? What better examples of the products of their institutions could they ask?

That’s not all. One of the greatest success stories in UCLA annals is that of Mel Farr, a great running back in the mid ‘60s who eventually went on to star in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. Farr’s post-football career was even better, opening up car dealerships, first with Ford, in the Detroit area. “Mel Farr Superstar Ford” became a staple with commercials on late night TV in the Motor City, but Farr was more than another car dealer, as his dealerships would cater to minorities, and help fund purchases for customers who would normally not qualify for loans. The high-risk lending strategy paid off; Farr thus became one of the top grossing auto dealers in the country. Hero-like stuff, the sort of story that should have been promoted by the UCLA athletic department.

Only it never was. Indeed, the only story about Farr, a high-profile star during his days in Westwood, to appear in the LA Times in his post-playing days was a puff piece done before the 1987 Aloha Bowl in which two of Farr’s sons played for the Bruins. Casual reference was made regarding Farr’s business interests. The LA media was always more concerned about some of the former USC stars, like O.J. Simpson, long before the white Bronco and his publicized trials and tribulations in the mid ‘90s. But who could blame the Times or any local paper if UCLA would never bring up its various success stories?

Further, don't you think the urban youth, even of today, would find it quite cool that Farr (along with Lions teammate Lem Barney) was one of the backup vocalists on Marvin Gaye's classic What's Going On? You bet they would. But we doubt anyone in the UCLA athletic department has a clue about this little-known piece of fascinating Motown trivia involving one of their own.

And what of Beban? Though not an African-American, still a success story that needs to be told, rising to the executive ranks with Coldwell Banker and now CB Richard Ellis. There might be no better example of a star athlete making a successful transition to everyday life and the business world than Beban, who has been based in Chicago for most of his post-college life. Yet UCLA has never seen fit to properly promote one of its most shining examples.

(Interestingly, when meeting up with Beban for a book project a few years ago, he expressed disappointment with recent UCLA athletic administrators that were not properly utilizing him or other past UCLA QBs such as Troy Aikman, Mark Harmon, John Sciarra, Neuheisel, and others that were willing to contribute to major fund-raising activities. We hardly believe another major school would shun its only Heisman Trophy winner, and such an outstanding success story, in a similar way).

How many youths, urban or otherwise, in the LA area know about Mel Farr and Gary Beban? Or Arthur Ashe or Rafer Johnson? Or Dr. Ralph Bunche? Or that Jackie Robinson attended UCLA? Yet most of the same young urban crowd is very well aware and admiring of the SC “stars” such as O.J. Mayo, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, and O.J., regardless of their personal shortcomings.

(To be fair, the Trojans have produced a lot of top-quality sorts in business life as well, including their AD, Pat Haden, and countless others. It's just that SC tends to do a better job promoting its success stories than the school across town.)

Faults of the ex-athletes? Hardly. Blame it on the current UCLA movers and shakers for not properly conveying the message about what an important place it holds in athletic history, and what a special place it has been for African-American and other athletes, long before other schools began to break the color barrier.

Granted, there are some hurdles that make it tough for UCLA to rise back to prominence in football. Admission requirements disqualify a number of potential recruits. But not all of them. Yet that is only a small portion of the puzzle that has gone wrong at UCLA.

The Bruins’ problem is that thanks to a succession of dull-edged bureaucrats in charge of proceedings, they have become comfortable with mediocrity. The malaise of the football program is just part of the bigger problem within an athletic department that has been more concerned with lightweight symbolic gestures and political correctness than recapturing the excellence of the J.D. Morgan years.

Which must make 'ol J.D. roll over in his grave.

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